JAWS and the 2014 Hall of Fame ballot: Larry Walker
The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2014 Hall of Fame ballot. Originally written for the 2013 election, it has been updated to reflect last year’s voting results as well as additional research and changes in WAR. For a detailed introduction to JAWS, please see here. For the schedule and an explanation of how posts on holdover candidates will be presented, see here.
Yet another great outfielder developed by the late, lamented Montreal Expos — Andre Dawson, Tim Raines and Vladimir Guerrero being the most notable — Larry Walker was the only one of that group who was actually born and raised in Canada, yet he spent less time playing for the Montreal faithful than any of them.
Walker spent 17 seasons in the major leagues but missed so much time due to injuries (and of course, the 1994-95 strike) that 23 other players took more plate appearances during the years spanning his career, even after excluding his 56 plate appearance pre-rookie season of 1989. The median players from that group, Gary Sheffield and Marquis Grissom (another fine product of the Montreal system) had 11 percent more plate appearances from 1990-2005. Stretch Walker’s career by that same 11 percent and his case for Cooperstown would be a whole lot stronger.
As it is, Walker’s relatively short career, high peak and extreme offensive environment put the JAWS system to the test. An excellent defender and a good baserunner as well as an outstanding hitter, he compares favorably to the average Hall of Fame rightfielder even after all the adjustments are made. For all of that, he’s off to a particularly slow start when it comes to the voting; in his third year on the ballot last time around, he received just 21.6 percent, down 1.3 percentage points from the previous year. As the ballot gets more crowded, he stands to get lost in the shuffle.
|Avg HOF RF||73.3||42.9||58.1|
Walker was born in British Columbia and more focused on playing hockey as a youth. In fact, he aspired to be an NHL goalie, and he honed his skills by blocking the shots of friend and future Hockey Hall of Famer Cam Neely. Baseball was a secondary focus for Walker until he was cut from a pair of Junior A hockey teams. He wasn’t drafted by a major league baseball team; instead, Expos scouting director Jim Fanning spotted him at a tournament and signed him for a paltry bonus of $1,500 in 1984. Because of his inexperience, he took some time to rise through the minors, his progress further slowed by a knee injury suffered playing winter ball in Mexico. Reconstructive surgery cost him all of the 1988 season, and even in the final year of his career he said that the knee still bothered him.
Walker debuted in the majors in late 1989, and claimed the regular rightfield job the following season, at times playing in an outfield that featured Raines and Grissom. His rate stats weren’t much to write home about at first glance (.241/.326/.434) but he did hit 19 homers and steal 21 bases en route to a 3.4 WAR season. He soon emerged as a potent offensive threat thanks to his combination of patience and pop, posting at least a 120 OPS+ four times in his five full seasons with the Expos. He averaged 4.2 WAR per year during that stretch thanks to above-average defense, despite never playing more than 143 games; he served DL stints in 1991 and ’93, and probably wasn’t helped by playing on Olympic Stadium’s artificial turf.
Walker’s most valuable season with the Expos was in 1992, when he hit .301/.353/.506 and was 10 runs above average in the field, good for 5.5 WAR. He was en route to a similarly fine season in 1994. Despite a shoulder injury which forced him to first base from late June onward, he hit .322/.394/.587 for the team that had the majors’ best record when the players’ strike hit. Alas, that marked the end of his time in Montreal. With general manager Kevin Malone under strict orders to cut payroll in the wake of the strike, the Expos didn’t even offer Walker arbitration, and he signed a four-year, $22.5 million deal with the Rockies shortly after the strike ended.
In Colorado, Walker stepped into the most favorable hitting environment of the post-World War II era. He hit 36 homers for the wild-card-winning Rockies in 1995, his first season in Denver, to go with a .306/.381/.607 line, but in a 5.4 run per game environment, his OPS+ fell by 20 points — that’s 20 percent relative to the league — from 151 to 131.
Walker missed more than two months of the 1996 season due to a broken collarbone and his production suffered. He returned to full strength in 1997 and hit an eye-popping .366/.452/.720, leading the league in on-base and slugging percentages as well as home runs (49); Tony Gwynn’s .372 batting average led the league, preventing Walker from the rare slash-stat Triple Crown. Still, his 409 total bases were the most since Stan Musial’s 429 in 1948. Over the next four years, four players — teammate Todd Helton, Barry Bonds, Luis Gonzalez and Sammy Sosa — would reach the 400 total base plateau six times thanks to favorable home ballparks, the higher offensive levels of the era, juiced baseballs and who knows what else. Even after adjusting for the scoring environment, Walker’s season was worth an NL-best 9.8 WAR, and he won MVP honors.
Walker won batting titles in each of the next two years, hitting .363/.445/.630 in 1998 and .379/.458/.710 in 1999; all three triple-slash stats led the league in the latter year, putting him in select company as the first player to lead the league in all three categories since 1980, and the first of a new wave of players to do it during the game’s high-offense years. Missing about 30 games a year in each of those seasons limited him to a combined 10.8 WAR.
After signing a six-year, $75 million extension with the Rockies, Walker continued to battle injuries, missing major time in 2000 but rebounding in ’01 to hit .350/.449/.662 for his third and final batting title. His 38 homers were the second-highest of his career, as was his 7.8 WAR. He played two more relatively full seasons for the Rockies, but spent the first two and a half months of the 2004 season on the disabled list with a groin strain; he came back and played 38 games with Colorado before being traded to the Cardinals in a waiver-period deal.
Coming down from altitude, Walker hit .280/.393/.560 with 11 homers in just 44 games for St. Louis, then hit two homers in each of the three rounds of the postseason as St. Louis made it all the way to the World Series before being swept by the Red Sox. He lasted just one more year, battling a herniated disc in his neck but hitting a very respectable .289/.384/.502 in 100 games.
Is that a Hall of Fame career? Walker’s key counting stats (2,160 hits, 383 home runs) are low for the era, particularly when one considers the advantages gained from taking 31 percent of his career plate appearances at Coors Field, where he put up video-game numbers: .381/.462/.710 with 154 homers in 2,501 plate appearances. Elsewhere, he hit a still-respectable .282/.372/.501. In other words, Coors added 28 points of on-base percentage and 64 points of slugging percentage to his overall line.
Baseball-Reference.com has a statistic called AIR that indexes the combination of park and league offensive levels into one number to provide a measure of how favorable or unfavorable the conditions a player faced were. According to the site’s definition, AIR “measures the offensive level of the leagues and parks the player played in relative to an all-time average of a .335 OBP and .400 Slugging Percentage. Over 100 indicates a favorable setting for hitters, under 100 a favorable setting for pitchers.” Walker’s AIR is the fifth-highest among players with at least 4,000 plate appearances, and all of the top five have a distinctly purple tinge to their careers:
Once you let the AIR out of Walker’s hitting, he’s tied with Chipper Jones for 35th all-time in OPS+ at 141 (8,000 plate appearance minimum). That’s certainly Cooperstown caliber in and of itself; he’s right ahead of Hall of Famers Duke Snider (140) and Reggie Jackson (139), for example. The problem is that many of the players on that list have around 30 percent more plate appearances over the courses of their careers than Walker, who just couldn’t stay on the field consistently enough. He topped 143 games just once (153 in 1997), and even excluding the strike years, averaged just 129 games a year from 1990 through 2003 before he really started to break down at age 37. In his seven best seasons according to OPS+, he averaged just 125 games.
Beyond the areas that JAWS covers, Walker’s credentials are good but not exceptional; backed by WAR, his MVP award appears to be on solid ground, the batting titles less so. For 1997, Walker’s 178 OPS+ is seven points behind that of Mike Piazza, who hit .362/.431/.638 while playing in parks that depressed scoring by five percent, compared to the ones that Walker played in that increased scoring by 21 percent. The Bill James Hall of Fame Standards and Hall of Fame Monitor stats — which dish out credit for things like seasons or careers with batting averages above .300, leagues led in key stats and playoff appearances (Walker hit .230/.350/.510 in 121 postseason plate appearances, good but hardly exceptional) — place Walker above the bar of the average Hall of Famer. Those metrics, though, weren’t designed with Coors Field or the sustained scoring levels of the 1993-2009 period as a whole in mind. That alone is a big reason why JAWS came into being: I wanted a tool that could adjust accordingly.
In all, I come down on the side of a “definite maybe” on Walker, which is a more generous take than the BBWAA voters have offered; he debuted at 20.3 percent in 2011, climbed to 22.9 percent in 2012, then fell back to 21.6 percent in 2013. I’d be willing to cast a vote for him given an actual ballot, provided his name wasn’t crowded off by 10 worthier candidates, which is a potential danger given this year’s very deep slate. Given the full spectrum of his credentials relative to Edgar Martinez, who played in a tougher hitting environment (105 AIR) but nonetheless built the bulk of his case on his offense (which is less ambiguously measured than defense), I’d vote for Martinez if I had one slot open on my ballot. I’d probably say the same for Craig Biggio, given the full context of his career. As with last year, Walker’s a provisional ‘yes’, subject to review after I work through the remaining 12 candidates.